Try Drama and Role Play with English Learners

By Alice Savage

Plays are a natural resource for the English language classroom. They offer opportunities to visit and revisit language in action, but they do much more as well.

Producing a play, even in readers’ theatre format (with script in hand, no costumes, blocking, or special lighting needed) also helps students loosen up and feel more confident “playing” with English and its many possible meanings.

Plays can reveal insights into the way speakers use fixed expressions, intonation, and gesture to convey feelings or wants, and to navigate relationships. And, importantly, producing a play can bring a motivating and much needed sense of fun to the classroom.

Here are 10 ideas for extending the content or language of a script into a lesson. They can be used in any order and can suit a variety of goals. Some help students overcome insecurities about speaking and performing. Others foster critical thinking and writing skills, and some help ground pronunciation or grammar work in a relevant context. Pick and choose, adapt, and modify. This list is just a starting point.

10. Find the Message.

After reading, listening to, or watching a play, have students identify the theme and the author’s purpose. Provide language that can support critical thinking. Here are some examples: The author wants to explore the possible effects of . . . The author wants people to think about . . . The author wants to compare . . . Have students work in groups to find support for the message in the script. Direct them to look at choices that characters make or the results of actions.

9. Get Stressed.

Do a lesson on word or sentence stress. Then have students mark the stress in their scripts, take roles, and practice reading. The rhythms of a play often feel more real than course book dialogs and can be practiced several times.

As you work through the script, you can add intonation, linking, reductions and other pronunciation awareness and practice activities.

Where can you find plays? In addition to the many vendor sources you’ll find on the internet, do some searches with phrases like “readers theatre for middle school (or your grade).” Exploring this free resource by Dr. Chase Young is worth the effort. Teacher Erin Beers has a “mega-pack” of RT activities for grades 4-7 at Teachers Paying Teachers. Keep looking!

8. Other People’s Shoes.

Characters in a play generally face challenges in achieving goals. After reading a play, discuss these struggles. In what ways are certain characters weak? In what ways are they brave? Then set a speaking or writing prompt. Compare yourself to a character. How are you like or not like that character?

7. Speak Body Language.

Write a list of gestures that reflect emotional states on the board. Then demonstrate what each one looks like. For example, here is a starter list: Fold your arms across your chest. Slump your shoulders. Put your hands on your hips. Put your hands on your neck. Make your hands into fists. Hold your hands palms up. Shrug. Point at someone. Raise your eyebrows. Knit your eyebrows. Look at the ground. Look at the sky. Tilt your head to the side. Fill your cheeks with air and blow the air out. Cover your face with your hands. Take a very deep breath. Stand with your feet apart. Kneel and look up.

Next, put pairs of students in groups of three or four and have them take turns performing the gestures in poses. Instruct students to discuss what emotion the pose communicates. Encourage them to try combining gestures or doing them in a sequence. Bring the groups back together for a discussion of each and write the emotion next to the gesture list on the board.

Extend the activity by having two students face each other and take turns gesturing and responding with a different gesture. For example, A stands with hands on hips. B slumps shoulders. A shrugs. B raises eyebrows. (This is also a great way to help students get over performance anxiety.)

As a final step, discuss the poses/gestures that would be appropriate for characters in the play you are working on. Or set individual actors to assign gestures to their scenes.

6. Find Hidden Meanings.

Look for the pragmatics in a scene by having students talk about characters’ intentions. Sometimes people cannot say what they want directly, so they use implicit communication. This is very common in plays. Investigate these hidden feelings by talking about the language characters choose and discussing their motivations. What do they really want, and what language strategies do they use to communicate it?

For example, say there is a scene where an older person is trying to influence a younger person. What does he say? Why? How does she respond? What is the outcome? Follow up with a role play in which students try to influence each other in a new context such as employees at a work place.

5. What She Said.

Teach a grammar lesson using the content of the script. For example, have students read a scene from a play, and have another group use reported speech to summarize the scene. They can speak or write, depending on the goals for the lesson.

Or stop a play mid-scene and ask students to use present perfect to describe what has happened so far. Or introduce past participle adjectives to describe characters reactions and feelings, e.g., disgusted, frustrated, frightened, inspired, depressed, excited, surprised, pleased.

4. Take a Character on a Date.

Have students improvise a scene between characters that is not in the script. Set a place and a task. For example, have a brother and sister discuss her fiancée’s computer gaming habits. Or have two friends at a bus stop try to decide whether to go to a Saturday math class or sneak away and go to the beach. (It’s most interesting if they have different goals.)

3. Play with Intonation.

Write a list of emotions such as enthusiastic, defensive, cautious, frustrated and reluctant on the board. Make sure the words reflect distinct emotions and that students understand the meanings.

Then select a few lines from a script. Choose lines that reflect commonly used phrases and expressions and that can reflect different attitudes. For example, “I just want to say one last thing,” “I can’t help it,” “It pains me,” or “That’s hard to believe.”

Write the lines on the board or give students a written copy. Model the activity by reading a line with one of the emotions and having students guess the emotion from the list. Improvise additional lines as necessary, e.g., “I can’t help it; when I see her do that, I have to say something!”

Model as many times as necessary for students to grasp the intonation patterns. Then put students in groups. Have them take turns delivering a line with a specific emotion. The speaker should not say the emotion. Other group members then guess the emotion the speaker is trying to convey.

2. Explore the Issues.

Have students research the issues raised by the play. Have them go online to find articles or videos about the topic. For example, if the play involves a young person’s dilemma about choosing a career, have students research STEM or liberal arts careers and write a career profile.

If the play is about a person working in a restaurant kitchen, have them find a clip from a food show, or report on a celebrity chef with a mission, or even interview a restaurant owner or manager about the business.

1. Have a Talkback.

Practice and perform the play. After the play, the actors sit facing the audience. The director or a moderator also has a few prepared questions to help the conversation get started. The audience is then invited to ask questions about the play, its development, and the issues it raises. The actors respond with their interpretations. The audience may also be invited to comment on their experiences watching the play.


Alice Savage is on the faculty of Lone Star College in Houston, TX. She has a Master of Arts in Teaching from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. In addition to teaching English language classes, she does occasional teacher training and has written several textbooks for English language learners. She is the author of a series for young adult English learners, Integrated Skills Through Drama.


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